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Useful Work and Exemplary Service: The True Meaning of Democracy

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Lisa Saye
October 17, 2022

The White House, October 2022. Photo by Lisa Saye.

The White House may arguably be considered modern democracy’s most famous address. But democracy is more than just American, isn’t it? Democracy belongs to everyone. It’s not defined by a single land mass. It’s not the product of one people, one tradition or one point of view. Its application in governance is highly localized. And as most public administrators know–local can be anywhere and everywhere.

Democracy is well cast. If it were a library, its books, videos and digital magazines would stretch from earth to the moon thousands and thousands of times. Not only is it superior to the other political and administrative abstractions history has been a witness to, it literally tells you what it needs to thrive through its elections. Elections, which through practice, produce a continuous and seamless reexamination of policy and program implementation coming from the very voice of its people.

A decline in any democratic economy can put its functionality as a strong system up for debate. The fault is not in the policy structure per se, but rather in the way systems revert to soft plans and synthetic strategies when gas, food and housing prices rise. Democracy’s success is often tied to a jobs report or the wide swings of the stock market. When both are unfavorable, public administrators are often tasked with explaining decreases in funding or the end of a program when neither may be due to current economic or political issues. While many strategies for governance may fall by the wayside, public administration is never on leave and it never takes a day off.

Financial fragility in a democracy is often a function of, or a combination of, poor planning, poor and limited vision or ineffective management. Democracies are structured to manage the social divisions in life by steering debate, practice and programs toward a core of social and political commonalities. But, let’s be careful not to lose the lesson here. In a democracy, debate is the rule. Through debate, citizens reconstitute democracy’s agenda. Those agendas evolve through time and reflect the social determinants of policy at a given moment.

Democracy has one goal and that is to provide exemplary service to the citizenry. Its victories are historic and its values are solutions when a bureaucracy becomes unaccountable. Democracy allows public administrators to reimagine service delivery with the introduction of new ideas and new best practices. For evidence of this, witness the new processes started during COVID and note how many are now a part of an agency’s standard operating procedures. 

There is no notion of something being democracy-adjacent. Solid governmental practices are not based on mystery because public service deals with real life. With equal and fair representation it is all or it is none. It is this practice that should be considered public administration’s most recurring theme. While democracy coaches, public administration guides. A good government structure supports citizens and allows them to get to the next part of their lives. A good system is designed to help make its citizens less vulnerable to shifts in the economy and other crises that may interrupt lives and livelihoods. If democracy is a tour of the best practices of government then public administration is its tour bus powered by an endless battery.

What societies face today is a constant need to try to figure out the best way to keep democracy going in a landscape of often bizarre social and political changes. Suspicion and distrust is keeping us from seeing the democracy in each other. We seem to prefer the distance as we inhabit the cold space of isolation. We are missing a lot in our desire to be completely alone and it is this lonely oneness where public administrators are expected to perform political and social miracles—and sometimes they do.

The place where democracy lives is important—hence why the recognition of a famous house or government building is so profound. People imagine that the halls of their most famous building-symbol are filled with mists of democracy and its walls echo the tales of democracy’s notable triumphs. This is a romantic and ideal way of seeing government and of imagining the useful work that public administrators do each day. While it is not altogether accurate, it is certainly aspirational.

Society needs the imagination democracy provides in its march toward stable government and equal representation. Public administrators know that policy and programs are not enough to change a life if citizen mobility is limited to an inch away from their face. There is a difference between the definition of democracy and the meaning of democracy. Marginalized populations live within the distinctions between that difference every day and would take meaning over definition any given Monday. Democracy is street-level and when it is allowed as a choice it can live wherever it is welcomed.

The White House image was taken by Lisa Saye in October 2022.

Author: Dr. Lisa Saye is OSO Director at America Works in Washington, D.C. She served as Fulbright Specialist in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and as International Consultant for the United Nations Development Program in The Maldives. She served as Chair of the Division of Social Sciences and Humanities and as Associate Professor of Public Administration at American University Afghanistan. Dr. Saye can be reached by email at [email protected].

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